By Richard Cohen (THE WASHINGTON POST, 10/07/07):
Tidying up the other day, I came across an old newspaper and, flipping through it, saw a picture that made my heart stop. It showed Palestinians, most of them young, all of them male, reacting with glee to a particularly heinous terrorist attack. The date was Sept. 12, 2001, and the Palestinians were cheering the deaths of about 3,000 innocent people in America the day before. You can, as they say, look it up.
What you don’t have to look up is that this was before America’s retaliatory invasion of Afghanistan or the war in Iraq. It was also before Guantanamo became shorthand for abuse of the president’s constitutional authority and before the outrage of Abu Ghraib, the U.S.-run prison in Iraq where terrorism suspects were sometimes even sexually abused. In other words, the demonstration by Palestinians (in the Lebanese refugee camp of Shatila) preceded most of the usual reasons given for why America today is held in contempt by much of the world.
It just so happens that I have been to the Shatila camp. It’s an integral part of Beirut and has existed since 1949, a situation that in a sane world would simply be out of the question. The blame for Shatila’s persistence can be assigned all around: to the Lebanese for failing to assimilate the Palestinians; to the often homicidal factionalism of the Middle East; to the Arab states for continuing to expound the chimera of a return to what was once Palestine (but which is now Israel); and, of course, to Israel itself for, among other things, allegedly abetting the 1982 massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps by Lebanese Christian forces. The Palestinians have been mistreated by just about everybody, including, of course, their own inept and often corrupt leadership.
Still, the chief reason for the cheering on Sept. 11 was U.S. support for Israel. Sometimes that support has been mindless and sometimes it has been over the top, but fundamentally it is based on certain truths. The first is that Israel is a legally sanctioned state, created by the United Nations in 1948 and recognized soon after by most countries, including — amazingly enough — Cold War adversaries the United States and the Soviet Union. The second truth is that at least one Islamic state (Iran) and a host of militant organizations — Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and, of course, al-Qaeda — fervently wish for Israel’s destruction. There is no way the United States could appease these groups and not, in the process, trample on its own moral values. Israel on occasion is wrong — and the settlements are an abomination — but its existence is right.
Granted, George Bush and his calamitous war — not to mention his swaggering unilateralism — have made matters worse. It’s hard, for instance, to overstate the impact of Abu Ghraib in the Arab world. When a couple of years ago my driver in Jordan brought up the abuses at that prison, he became visibly upset. He was a college graduate who had been abroad — what might be called Westernized. Yet the wanton contempt for Islamic and Arab sexual taboos was almost more than he could take. Soon, he had to stop talking. All in all, Bush’s presidency has been a tear-down for America’s image. The next president will have to start almost from scratch.
But, in a way, America has little choice about being hated in some parts of the world. The United States is never going to be truly popular as long as it insists on adhering to certain principles. Russia, which is creeping back to totalitarianism, does not have this problem. China, which is already authoritarian and obstructionist on Darfur, does not have this problem. Cuba, which is authoritarian, obstructionist and vile, also does not have this problem. Many Serbs hate America for the NATO bombing of that country, but the bombing stopped the killing in the Balkans. Tell me that was the wrong thing to do.
Alastair Campbell, a one-time spokesman for Tony Blair while he was prime minister, has published a book in Britain titled “The Blair Years: The Alastair Campbell Diaries.” In it, he recounts Sept. 12, 2001, at 10 Downing Street and the procession of briefers who came to the prime minister that day: “One of the experts . . . a total Arabist, came very close to saying the attack was justified, saying the Americans should look to their own policy on the Middle East to understand why so many people don’t like them.”
It’s always nice to have friends. Sometimes, though, it’s more honorable to have enemies.